Film auteurs are probably driven batty by the uncharted, and unchartable, career of Jonathan Demme. "I follow my enthusiasm wherever it goes," the director shrugs.
Mostly, it goes zig-zaggy — from big-budget studio releases ("Beloved" and "Married to the Mob") to rock-driven documentaries ("Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and its upcoming son-of, "Neil Young: Trunk Show") to ill-advised remakes ("The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Truth About Charlie," a remake of "Charade").
Along the way, he has helmed four Oscar-winning performances (Mary Steenburgen in "Melvin and Howard," Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia" and Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs") and even won one for himself (for the latter).
Now, at this better-late-than-never date, the 66-year-old Demme has decided to make his theatrical debut by reviving (or, more accurately, resuscitating) a failed, decade-old Beth Henley play, Family Week, at the Lucille Lortel for MCC Theater.
It might be just his enthusiasm talking, but he has gone about this task with commendable confidence. "To me," he says, "the story we're telling and the actors who bring it to life — that's what it's all about in both theatre and film. I'm focusing on exactly the same stuff. Even though crafting the visual side of filmmaking is thrilling, it's great to not be concerned with that dynamic. Instead, the perspective is out there in the seats — how it looks from one place — and that's very, very exciting."
He and Henley are quirky kindred spirits, drawn like magnets to the unexpected or the off-center, so their collaboration was rather inescapable. They first crossed paths as director and writer in the '80s, on a PBS piece called "Trying Times," and vowed to do it again. It almost happened for the movie version of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Crimes of the Heart. To re-team, she (lightly) took up acting and did a Bible pusher bit in his "Swing Shift"; now, he has totally switched mediums to do Family Week Off-Broadway, hoping there's a movie in it down the road.
"I've had the privilege of reading, as a friend, all of Beth's plays," says Demme. "I read Family Week when she first wrote it and thought it was a real gem. It had a ridiculously short run in New York, but because I loved that play so much, it stuck in my mind."
It popped back into his head last year when he attended a reading of Henley's latest, The Jacksonian. "Just sitting there, I thought, 'God, I love the theatre! This is exciting! I'd like to do this. Maybe I could do Family Week.' So I spoke with Bernie Telsey, who was the casting director on 'Rachel Getting Married' — we had a terrific time together — and asked him to put together a reading while Beth was in town. We did that, and it was magical to feel the emotion and laughter in that room."
Afterward, he asked Telsey if it was revivable, and Telsey, being a founding father of Manhattan Class Company, was the guy to ask. He instantly found a slot on MCC's schedule — "and now I'm sitting here with Harry Haun talking for a Playbill piece. Those things happen. I didn't decide to do theatah — there was no moment like that."
It's easy to understand what the director of "Rachel Getting Married" saw in Family Week, another dysfunctional-family comedy. By any other name, it's Claire Getting Rehabbed. "I wasn't thinking in those terms at all, but it was brought to my attention that both pieces share certain themes. And, for someone who loves Chekhov as much as I do, I see why I love these two very different pieces."
Rosemarie DeWitt, the aforementioned Rachel, is cast here as Claire, a patient at a swanky desert rehab clinic recovering from a breakdown. Four months into her treatment, her mother (Kathleen Chalfant), sister (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and daughter (Sami Gayle) all descend on her with festering domestic-war wounds of their own. It's survival-of-the-loudest time, traditionally a source of fun for Henley.
"Beth's work is always sturdily formatted drama, but there's tremendous originality within the framework," Demme says. "That's another thing the play has in common with "Rachel" and other scripts that have attracted me. I love surprises. I think we in the audience love surprises, so that turns me on as a filmmaker and also as a theatre director."
One new thing for a Henley play: no hominy-grits accent. "Beth has de-regionalized the piece. It was set rather specifically in the South its first go-around, and this time the feeling was 'Let's make this story take place in America, but let's let the energy go on the characters in the story and the themes.' Now it's that much more about all of us. I love the way moving the story to Middle America, wherever that is, makes it more accessible, easier for people to see the piece in a fresh perspective."
Next stop for the unpredictable Demme is also something that hasn't been on the charts before: his first animated feature, "Zeitoun," based on Dave Eggers' nonfiction about one man's experience during and following Hurricane Katrina. It grew out of his ongoing four-year documentary project about survival in New Orleans — another endeavor where his very particular passion has pointed the way.
* (The opening of Family Week was delayed one week, from April 26 to May 4, to allow Demme and cast more time to shape the work. "Jonathan and Beth have been collaborating on Family Week for quite some time now," stated co-artistic director Bernard Telsey. "MCC prides itself on being a laboratory for the development of plays and for artists to explore and experiment with new ideas. We are more than happy to give this production the necessary time for our creative team to continue working on this wonderful play.")